Formula One is thought to be the second most popular sport in the world, but in the United States it’s rarely even an afterthought. I don’t know if you can put the cart before the horse or if you can have a chicken before an egg, but the races this year also have very little American presence on the track.
There has been some progress, and 2016 will introduce the new Haas racing F1 team I expect Haas will be a legitimate force, if not actual contenders for the podium. Backed by deep corporate pockets, seeking to expand their own brand globally, and with solid racing knowhow from their domestic efforts as well as a Ferrari engine, Haas should have a steep learning curve. However, they elected to go with known quantities in the driver’s seats and not an American behind the wheel.
In a sport where the highest team budgets can go beyond $500 million annually, staying solvent is always part of the equation in F1. Some teams have failed recently, and left their staffs unpaid and gear sent to auction. In this age, it’s sometimes not the best choice for winning that is selected, but that which will keep you afloat. It can be more practical for a team to develop a car than can secure points but not truly compete for the front, giving them a decent piece of the financial purse. A realistic effort and budget can gather lucrative points in the middle of the pack, making a team profitable, rather than overspending with the hopes of an occasional podium, where the results wouldn’t cover the financial costs. It can also be better to select a driver who brings along cash, rather than one who may be faster but needs to get paid.
Recently this played out on the newly badged Renault team, when they decided to release tenured driver, the Venezuelan Pastor Maldonado from his contract. Maldonado had been a bit wild in recent seasons, with some spectacular wrecks and many dnfs (hasmaldonadocrashedtoday.com) but he had always brought along millions from the Venezuelan oil company PDVSA. Likely due to the massive drop in oil prices, PDVSA had been recently slow in delivering their pledged payments and Renault cut Maldonado loose.
These types of motivators have had an impact on the lack of American presence on the grid. Manor is the lowest budgeted F1 team and emerged with new principal ownership from bankruptcy just a year ago. Last season they granted American and paddock favorite Alexander Rossi 5 starts behind the wheel. Rossi did well and outperformed his senior teammate on the track. However, once again finances prioritized decisions and when it had been hoped that the Californian would have a regular seat for the Manor team this year; they opted instead to bring in the first ever Indonesian driver in F1, Rio Haryanto. Indonesia is a large and important growing market for motorsports, and it’s understood that with Haryanto, Manor was securing $20 million in additional funding from the state owned natural gas company, and additional Indonesian sponsors are expected. Alexander has been hired in the Indy racing series for 2016 by the Andretti racing team.
Rio Haryanto of Manor Racing
So, while I remain passionate about the drama and action of Formula 1, it’s hard to make the case for Americans to come along at this point. We have one race currently scheduled in the USA, in Austin, along with additional races held in Montreal and Mexico City. While Montreal is considered a fan and driver favorite, the race in Austin is struggling for its life. Attendance started strong a few years ago but has trailed off, and state funding has been withdrawn, threatening the future of the event.